Leah Hager Cohen’s new novel about a quirky family planning a wedding in a tumbledown house contains all the stale promise of an arthritic rom-com.
But it’s an absolute delight. And if anything about “Strangers and Cousins” sounds tepid or old-fashioned, know that Cohen has infused this story with the most pressing concerns of our era. The result is an unusually substantive comedy, a perfect summer novel: funny and tender but also provocative and wise.
The book is divided into five episodes, like the five acts of a stage play, one for each day of the week culminating with the wedding of 22-year-old Clem. She’s the eldest of four children who belong to Bennie and Walter Blumenthal, a white family that has lived for generations in the small town of Rundle Junction. That Clem is marrying a black woman doesn’t bother any of these good liberals. They’re more concerned about the format of the ceremony itself: A student of experimental theater, Clem wants a wedding that deconstructs matrimony, “a kind of paratheater in which the border between art and life is dissolved.” Her ever-patient parents are quietly skeptical, but openly supportive.
“Everything is vaudeville in this house,” Cohen writes. The family, never orderly even under normal circumstances, has become a whirling dervish of preparation for the upcoming ceremony in their backyard. Bennie, mother of the bride, fantasizes about an idealized tableau entitled “Mother and Daughter on the Eve of the Daughter’s Nuptials, an Idyll of Great Poignancy Attended by Love, Fear and Hope.” But her efforts to get organized are hilariously thwarted. Among her adorable antagonists is a 5-year-old superhero who storms around the house wearing a cape — and nothing else. His siblings aren’t much more help. Eight-year-old Samantha keeps whacking people with a cast on her arm, and their older brother, Tom, has recently discovered just how handsome he is.
Youngsters are hard to handle in life, even harder in novels. The cute ones can be cloying; the sharp ones risk taking on that synthetic luster of smart-alecky TV kids. One of Cohen’s many triumphs in “Strangers and Cousins” is that she captures the irrepressible glee of loved children, their elfish comportment, their expert resistance to adult direction, which stems from the fact that they live in a realm slightly out of phase from ours.
But then none of us is perfectly in sync, which is the source of so much of our tragedy and comedy. That becomes clear with the early arrival of the first wedding guest, ancient Great Aunt Glad, who once lived in this house decades ago. Cohen quickly proves herself as sympathetic to the very old as she is to the very young. (She’s weirdly perceptive about the minds of animals, too, but that’s another issue.) Though somewhat confused about the current hubbub unfolding all around her, Aunt Glad has a clear memory of another ceremony 87 years earlier. That celebration ended in a disaster that’s still etched on her body and casts a long shadow over Rundle Junction.
This historical element never dominates the novel, but Cohen connects it to the modern-day story in such a way as to give “Strangers and Cousins” surprising weight. “There’s certainly something in the air — but is it festivity?” Cohen asks with her typically arch voice. In the background of the happy preparation for Clem’s wedding, a controversy is rumbling in town. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have begun buying up property to establish a new Haredi community. Some Rundle Junction residents, seeing how other towns have been affected by the Haredim, hope to block the newcomers by raising environmental concerns about an imperiled wetland. Others plan to sell their homes before property values start dropping. When swastikas show up on a construction trailer, the community has a stark choice to make.
What an uncomfortable and yet illuminating conundrum Cohen has designed for these folks. It’s thrilling to send a righteous tweet, but how would any of us behave if our actions cost us something substantial? Bennie and Walter, a secular Jew, have dedicated their whole lives to the cause of tolerance. They abhor anti-Semitism, of course. They believe deeply in the right of all people to move, to assemble, to promote their own values through democratic means. And yet they’re self-aware enough to admit that “any opinion either of them has about the unfolding drama involving swastikas and lawn signs is inevitably tainted by self-interest.” They’ve heard how the Haredim have taken over school boards and transformed other towns. As the Blumenthals get ready to celebrate their daughter’s biracial gay wedding, what other expressions of difference are they willing to embrace? In the lives of these thoughtful people, Cohen locates the painful inflection point of their morality.
Zoning, pollution, racism, anti-Semitism — these are heavy themes that could easily overwhelm “Strangers and Cousins” or, worse, look tritely exploited by it. But that’s the real artistry of Cohen’s work: her sensitive exploration of the whole range of our complicated, compromised lives. And she puts to rest the smug assumption that there’s anything minor or unambitious about a witty domestic novel. After all, for most of us, hatred is stoked or quelled in living rooms. In such little arenas, our ideals and fears play out, grandly or meanly.
It makes sense that Cohen was one of the judges for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2018 when Andrew Sean Greer won for “Less.” She takes comedy seriously. That shows in the way “Strangers and Cousins” floats on the waters of a society in flux, an America still trying to figure out who we really are. Cohen’s ability to acknowledge the agony of that strife in the context of a modern, loving family makes this one of the most hopeful and insightful novels I’ve read in years.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
Strangers and Cousins
By Leah Hager Cohen
Riverhead. 319 pp. $27